A key rule that exorcists in the Roman Catholic Church follow is that they never engage the evil spirits in conversation. The fear is that they’ll find themselves influenced, and then corrupted, by the malign power they are commissioned to resist and then drive out. That’s an extreme circumstance, but a good rule: Don’t play with fire, lest you get burned.
How does that apply to us? Obviously, it applies with regard to what some of the elders among us learned to call “near occasions of sin”: activities or settings that, while not sinful in themselves, can easily lead us into sin. We mostly learned to think about these with regard to the sin of lust. But I want to invite you to think about a less-obvious, but perhaps even more dangerous, sort of “near occasion of sin” that can lead us into the more soul-killing sin of despair.
What is this potential soul-killer? The same one that exorcists are warned against: becoming fascinated by evil. And where do we find fascinating evil? In media stories of violence, lying, corruption, theft, and the rest; and in social-media accounts of others’ foibles and failures. Too much (or the wrong kind of) attention to these things is “playing with fire” because it can ruin us.
As citizens we have an obligation to try to understand current events and our leaders’ positions on them, as well as our leaders’ character. But especially in this partisan climate we can shift away for a dispassionate search for understanding into something less-honorable and quite destructive. We need to approach the news with caution, lest we become infected with the evils we deplore.
(There’s an old Doonesbury cartoon strip that makes this point vividly. In it, the radio news reader Mark Slackmeyer is dispassionately reading the news of the day (the Watergate era) into his microphone, going on “…John Mitchell, the former U.S. Attorney-General, has in recent weeks been repeatedly linked with both the Watergate caper and its cover-up. It would be a disservice to Mr. Mitchell and his character to prejudge the man, but everything known to date could lead one to conclude he’s guilty…” And in the final panel, pounding his desk and wide-eyed, he goes on: “That’s guilty! Guilty, guilty, guilty!”)
There are three things we as disciples of Christ can do to avoid this sort of entrapment by evil. First, we can assess our use of the public news media and of social media. Are our sources interested in dispassionately informing us, or do they want to inflame our passions? Even if we only choose good sources, how much can we afford to expose ourselves to stories of sin and evil? Do we find ourselves taking grim satisfaction in the apparent sins of others (which is a sin on our part, by the way)?
Second, we can do our best to insulate ourselves when we truly need to be exposed to evil in the news. We can pray for those whom we will learn about; we can pray while watching or listening that virtue will triumph; and we can remember the wise maxim that, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Third, we can focus more than we now do on the good. A few weeks ago we heard Saint Paul say to his congregation at Philippi, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” [Phil 4:8] This time of year, around the Thanksgiving holiday, is a good time for that. And we might find that we become better persons throughout the year by focusing more on the good; and through that focus becoming more grateful to God and more generous to others. That’s how our demons get cast out. Happy Thanksgiving, and until next week, peace.